That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The ominous desert beast moves slowly toward a confrontation with human society. The beast appears to be awakened from Christ’s era (“twenty centuries of stony sleep”), and to represent some amalgam of Christ himself (also born at Bethlehem), the apocalyptic “beast coming up out of the earth” in the Book of Revelation (see Rev. 13:11-18), and the voracious Sphinx of Egyptian/Greek mythology (see note on “A shape with lion body…” above).
In other words, the beast represents the “second coming” promised by Christian theology. Ironically, this creature closely resembling a pagan mythological figure (the sphinx) arrives in place of Christ. Yeats seems to imply that rather than getting the Christ we expected, a benevolent one, we’ll be getting the one we deserve.
These lines have been heavily referenced by other authors, including Joan Didion in her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem and conservative justice Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (a title later parodied by sex advice columnist Dan Savage in his collection Skipping Towards Gomorrah).
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